Restaurant review: Culinary wizard

Offerings from Kirkgate Market
Offerings from Kirkgate Market
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At The Man Behind the Curtain, Jill Turton finds there’s definitely a little magic happening in the kitchen.

Not since Anthony Flinn at Anthony’s and Richard Walton Allen at Harvey Nichols, has Leeds had a really top flight restaurant. Now it has with the oddly named Man Behind the Curtain which opened in June in the glorious attic room above Flannels on Vicar Lane.The name is a reference to the Wizard of Oz: “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” where the wizard creates his magic. That’s tricky when the man behind this curtain is the 6ft, broad shouldered, bleached blonde, tattooed chef Michael O’Hare who totters back and forth in the open plan kitchen in a black leather apron, needle narrow jeans and silver leather cuban heel boots. But if it’s magic you are looking for it’s here in spades. You will have already realised that this is no ordinary restaurant and O’Hare no ordinary chef. Readers may remember him from the Blind Swine in York where for a brief and exciting 12 months he wowed us with mint juleps served in a battered tin can, carrots and radishes ‘planted’ in a rye ‘soil’ plant pot and sloe gin sauce poured from a cartridge case. All good fun but with no website, a chaotic booking system, a noisy dining room that doubled as a cocktail bar, it was also a bit of a circus.

The Man Behind the Curtain where O’Hare is chef/patron, is a more refined operation altogether – a modern restaurant that is sophisticated, yet unstuffy, polished yet relaxed. In the cool white space in the eaves, minimally furnished with elegant Danish furniture and a vista of the city’s roof-scape, O’Hare has created a proper, grown-up restaurant with remarkable food and, it has to be said, at a remarkable price.

The no-choice, (except at lunch), 12 course, tasting menu comes in at a whopping £65 per head. I know, but think of a Test Match or Wimbledon ticket, a hotel room or the price tag on the clothes downstairs. Treat it as an experience and you’ll come away having encountered nothing quite like it before.

To describe every one of the 12 courses would take up all this review and next week’s too. More importantly it would be a spoiler. Half the fun of eating here is the surprise. What, for instance, is inside that elegant cardboard box? What’s with the individual cellophane-wrapped olives? Ceps and chocolate, are you kidding? Ever heard of oyster leaf and what do you do with a Tom Ford inspired tobacco tin of crushed ice and a pair of scissors?

But the menu will have changed by the time you read this so here are a few stand-out dishes worth mentioning. The hot and cold pea soup for instance, is made up of cold pea ice cream and hot pea soup, garnished with beetroot, red cabbage and carrot foam. It tastes amazing and looks a picture, served with beautifully tapered baguettes with superb crunch, just the job for scooping up the heart-stopping, rendered pork fat with prosciutto crumbs.

Braised salt and vinegar ox cheek is another knock-out dish served with a foie gras and sherry sauce and puffed wild rice. If veggies have stopped reading by now, call them back. O’Hare will do a full tasting menu for vegetarians (though not vegans, that’s just too demanding over 12 courses, he says).

At dessert we coo over the Gariguette strawberries with Parmesan ice cream, balsamic vinegar, basil and raspberry crumbs. But no list of ingredients can adequately describe the pairing of flavours: bitter, sweet, sour, salty, all working together on a plate of deliciousness.

The wine and cocktail list is worth noting too. Barman Rob Derbyshire has created some elegant cocktails. I can vouch for the upmarket ‘slush puppy’ of apple, sorrel and lemon that comes with flower studded crushed ice and its own bottle of gin, though the peppery and non-alcoholic rocket, ginger beer and lemon sorbet was fairly hardcore. Restaurant manager Charlotte Rasburn doubles as sommelier, and advises on the wine list with an impressive assurance, as well she might, having been the former sommelier at the Box Tree. We had the £20 wine flight that included a sparkling wine, a sherry and a beautifully crisp A Coroa Godello 2012 from Galicia.

You have to hand it to the lad from Middlesbrough who learned his trade at Judges in Yarm and Seaham Hall in County Durham then honed it in London under John Burton-Race, with time in France and a stage at the famous Noma in Copenhagen.

The result of O’Hare’s vision matches extraordinary tastes with theatre. A 12 act play complete with sets and costumes and if O’Hare is the leading man, then 19-year-old Luke Cockerill, is the rising star. Together with the front-of-house, it feels like a strong cohesive team who know just what they are doing over the carefully paced courses, though beware if you’re in the (also expensive) market car park which may well have closed at 11pm before the final curtain.

If 12 small courses conjures up doll’s-house portions – and I’m generally no fan of the tasting menu – fear not, you won’t go hungry. Just save up and go. There is nowhere like it in Yorkshire. Leeds has a stellar restaurant again.

• The Man Behind the Curtain, 68-78 Vicar Lane, Leeds LS1 7JH. 0113 243 2376, Open: Friday and Saturday, 12.30-4pm & Wednesday to Saturday, 6.30pm-9.30pm. Price: £65 plus wine and coffee.